A Spectrum of Opinion: Chromosome Testing

Twenty Years Later…Just as Relevant

In the Winter 1997 issue of the Pagan Muse & World Report, we began running a forum feature entitled  A Spectrum of Opinion. The three points of view represented below are just as relevant today as they were twenty years ago when first published—say, rather, even more relevant in a day when corporate entities like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com are advertising spit tests for the low, low price of $99…

NOTE: reprinted without change except editing for grammar and spelling from the original.

I Want to Know

by Sharon Steiner

Chromosome testing? I’m all for it. Who would not prefer to know whether the child they are carrying may have any of a number of genetic disorders that could cause problems for the child and or the family? If there is a possibility of Down’s Syndrome (significant mental retardation, minor physical effects), would it be better to abort the child, or are there resources available that would enable you to care for the child as needed? It seems to me that children have so many problems anyway, that knowingly bringing into the world one who must fight twice as hard just to stay even with their peers ranks as cruelty of the first water.

If one knew that one had a chance of developing Alzheimer’s (premature senile mental deterioration), is it not better to be able to know beforehand and take steps to have one’s affairs in such order as to enable one’s caregivers to effectively care for you when that time comes? Or to have the means available to take one’s own life before reaching the point of needing care? If one is aware of the probability of passing on to one’s children bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, would you not prefer to know and so make an informed choice whether even to have children?

Of course, there is also the possibility of using chromosome-testing information frivolously—say, to ensure that one had the smartest and prettiest child on the block. In fact, I would find this use the most likely, given the very human proclivity to vanity. For some insight into this possibility, just look at the pet-breeding industry. Some breeds of pets are fast becoming nonviable as a result of genetic manipulation.

I guess the question is whether one wants to have all information available to make informed choices, or to continue to stumble around in the dark. Admittedly, the human race has done a fair job of stumbling around: we have produced a fair lot of geniuses and we have gotten a fair piece down the road of exploring our world and ourselves. DNA testing can be another tool to find out about both. There will no doubt be a number of misuses and foolishnesses, but this is what we are here for, to explore and find out.

You Can’t Go Back

by Deborah Snavely

I come from a long, matrilineal line of women’s cancers. My great-grandmother died of breast cancer; my grandmother more indirectly, of an intestinal blockage caused by one too many abdominal surgeries, including the hysterectomy for cervical cancer. We live to ripe old ages anyway, but when it comes to death, breast or cervical cancer has been in every single woman’s life, right down to the currently living generations. My sister’s had an ovarian cyst, my mother was a 39-year breast cancer survivor, and I’ve periodically quit caffeine in an attempt to dodge the fibroid bullet.

So when I heard that they’d developed a chromosomal test for one of the contributors to breast cancer, I had to think about taking it. But it didn’t take me long to decide that it was still much too vague a definition of risk to suit me. Only a small percentage of breast cancers are genetic, according to the current research. So, if I test for the chromosome, and I come up positive, does that increase my chances of actually getting it by any amount? No. My risk is still the same as it was. But now I know that my chances are 1 in 7 instead of 1 in 8. So? Does that mean some nosey-parker health insurance company is going to jack up my premiums?

When it comes to chromosome testing like that, I’m not sure knowledge is power; it may be that ignorance is bliss! That possibly mutilated myth of Pandora and her box comes to mind: once you’ve opened the box of information—eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge—you can’t go back, you can only go forward. Once scientists had started theorizing how to split up atoms, those little bits of intrinsic matter once thought indivisible, it was only a matter of time before human curiosity led someone into trying out how to do it. The genie was out of the bottle.

In the same fashion, we must now deal with the rapidly increasing collection of genetic data thrust upon us by the march of science, curiosity, and that common drive to be able to fix things for people. Helping people is one of our social instincts, just as is hurting in response to being hurt. The Human Genome Project, ambitiously determined to map the entire sequence of DNA in the human animal, contributes stray new facts every week. Medical researchers meet them in the middle with chromosomal markers found to identify a particular trait or disease or predisposition. And actuarial bean-counters sniff along behind them both, noting the associations between a particular family history or genetic trait and various diseases. Why? Insurance—that juggernaut business casino that bets you you’ll live long enough to pay more in premiums than your family will get when you die. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the house always wins? They get their percentage off the top.

In a long-winded autobiographical article last year [1996], a New York Times Magazine staffer went through a research project’s chromosome testing for a relatively rare condition that’s statistically likely (better than a 50% chance, I think it was) to affect him. It’s grouped in his family tree, so he knew it was in the range of possibilities; he’d made his will at a relatively young age. Still, this was different. This wasn’t just the odds—humans gamble every day. This was him. His genes. The test wouldn’t indicate certainty that he’d get the disorder, but it would verify whether or not he had the potentially deadly gene. The researchers provided counseling, both about the relationship between the statistical data they were compiling and what they knew about the disorder, and personal counseling to help him decide whether he wanted to hear their results—which had some small percentage for potential in- accuracy, after all. Existing methods for determining DNA details are extremely slick, to be sure, but we’re using macro tools to examine micro events; there’s almost always some small chance of the observer affecting the outcome. In the end, he decided he didn’t want to know.

It’s a position I can sympathize with: make preparations, then live every day as if it were your last.

Will Big Brother Test You, or Will You Test Big Brother?

by K.C. Anton

In a broad sense, humans have worked with genetics since the first herdsman or farmer realized that if they forced the mating of certain animals or plants, they could get a planned offspring. Through the ages this manipulation has, by its very use, determined the “nature” of this planet and the societies that reside on it.

Scientifically, we are once again at a crossroads (Hecate’s turf), where we, the people of the world, need to re-evaluate our feelings regarding this question. Genetic science, and specifically human chromosomal information, has reached the point where hard questions must be asked.

I believe every society comes to the conclusion that it “needs”; it changes what it wants into what it needs, creating an excuse for its actions, thus soothing its collective conscience. The answers a society reaches in these philosophical waters builds the direction that that society will follow for years, decades, or centuries, if it’s lucky. This pattern has been proven repeatedly; seldom has a society taken the time to choose whether the route it takes is preferred, or the ramifications understood.

The hard sciences were affected by this pattern for centuries—by religious philosophies before and during the European Renaissance. Astronomy, theoretical mathematics, and medicine are examples of what happened when men decided that they had control of themselves, their actions, their environment, and their fate. They were the center of all, until proven otherwise.

We laugh at their simplistic and obviously “unenlightened” outlook on the world. As you smile and smirk at the audacity of our grandsires, remember that we also answered these questions in our society—through the use of atomic energy, controlled livestock breeding, and agrarian genetic manipulation to produce bigger, stronger, and larger yields. Human medical inoculation and preventive medicine are only a sampling of how we have already altered our world and ourselves. We have created a world in which our own natural selection is and will be affected profoundly. This power is why genetic chromosomal testing must be looked at and consciously decided upon by the individuals in the world’s society. This issue will have far-reaching effects in the years to come; I see it as a major nexus in our societal and world history. As an example of these effects, the insurance industry already has far-reaching influence shaping our society via health, travel, lodging, and business insurance. Overall, this industry runs upon choices made by actuarial charting—the percentage or chance of a particular occurrence happening when a certain amount of the variables are known.

Insurance gambles on percentage of risk in a given situation. The more variables you can control in a situation, the more you can predict the outcome and the less of a gamble it is. With chromosome identification, you can “chart” the possible outcome of a person’s offspring much better than without. The insurance industry is very interested in chromosome testing. Should you be concerned? Possibly, if only because it is the job of the insurance industry to plan for societal trends to come, decades in the future. The rest of us have a hard time seeing where we could be next year, let alone in 2020. But think about the prospect of governmental policies:

  • keeping people from marrying because they have the potential for familial abuse.
  • denying couples children because there is a potential of passing on “unpleasant” physical or emotional characteristics.

Such restrictions are possible. Just as we now eradicate disease before it can infect a human host, chromosomal manipulation offers the possibility of eradicating cancer, viruses, mental illness, and physical infirmity.

Now is the time to consider your thoughts and feelings on all of these questions. Take action to inform others. If you choose not to share your thoughts and thus help form the world’s opinions on these questions, that’s okay. Others are acting on their decisions, too, and the world will change and be created anyway.

Afterword

Privacy in this 2018 world is rapidly evaporating. Data gathered from all sorts of sources infests how the technology we use daily interacts with us…and behind the scenes are the programmers and algorithms and actuarial analysts manipulating emotions and opinions so visibly in our world. If you choose not to believe that foreign hackers altered the results of the 2016 presidential election in the USA, you are welcome to live in your fantasy world. Alas, the rest of us have to deal with Brexit and Trump and strongman politics…which makes me, at the least, reluctant to give anyone DNA data to play with!

Hippocrates Would Be Proud

A topic revisited…

On September 22 1996, Dr. Philip Nitchke assisted at the world’s first legal doctor-aided suicide,* made possible by the Northern Territories (Australia) enactment of a voluntary euthanasia law that became effective on July 1. At the Darwin, Australia, home of Bob Dent, Nitchke connected up the retired carpenter, who suffered from advanced prostate cancer, to a computer-controlled “death machine.” Dent answered a series of questions on the computer keyboard, until it asked the penultimate one, whether he understood that a yes answer to the final question would, after 15 seconds, inject him with a lethal mixture of barbiturates and muscle relaxants. It then asked him simply, “Are you ready to die?” Dent answered yes, and died with his wife at his side.

*The Australian Northern Territories  outlawed physician-assisted suicide within before 1999.
At present, several U.S. states, and several countries around the world legally  allow either passive euthanasia (refusing/withholding life-extending treatment) or physician-assisted suicide (“death with dignity”). Oregon’s statistics, the first U.S. state with such a law, record fewer than 250 persons per year making use of this choice.

Euthanasia Is Witchcraft?

The controversial law that made this event possible is hedged with precautions: it is only available to those terminally ill, they must be evaluated by two doctors and a psychiatrist, and patients must wait nine days after evaluation before an injection can be administered. Nonetheless, the usual suspects are mustering in opposition. Clerics along with conservative doctors are mounting an effort to create national legislation outlawing the practice. Some aboriginal leaders join in because they believe euthanasia is a form of witchcraft. The belief seems to stem from an aboriginal concept that is the flip side of the Asian belief that if you save someone’s life you are responsible for it. In the same vein, according to sources familiar with aboriginal ideas, if you take someone’s life, you have taken control of his soul—and that’s witchcraft, by their lights.

Thou Shalt Do No Murder

Let’s look at that: the taboo against murder is very nearly universal among humankind. That doesn’t stop humans from killing each other in all sorts of other ways: self-defense, war, plain old accidents. Causing someone’s death directly without their permission or knowledge is taking control of them, certainly, and heinous…but what about with their permission? at their request? Curing someone is taking control, too, you see. That’s why so many Pagan belief systems teach that a patient must give permission for any healing beforehand. Requiring permission leaves control of a person’s own being in the hands of that individual.

So, are we then responsible for the soul of someone who slips—and breaks a neck—on the banana peel that missed the compost heap? That scarce commodity “common” sense, I think, would say no; you didn’t mean to, it wasn’t intentional. Intent is the key. You planned to kill him, you meant to kill him, youdid kill him; that’s first degree murder. You didn’t plan to kill him, but in a moment’s fury or despair or misery or terror, you acted and did kill him, that’s still murder, but second degree—except in self-defense. You didn’t plan to, didn’t intend to, but your actions caused his death, that’s not murder, that’s manslaughter. Thus embedded in our statutes is the belief that intent counts. It’s what you mean to do that matters.

First of All, Do No Harm

Among the initiatory mystery traditions of ancient Greece are the spiritual Eleusinian mysteries, the mathematical Pythagorean mysteries, and the medical Hippocratic mysteries. Yes, Hippocrates founded an initiatory tradition of physicians, who all swore, as M.D.’s today still swear, to “first of all, do no harm.” The traditional Hippocratic oath includes a promise not to provide “a deadly drug.” I note that there exists very nearly no drug, pharmaceutical or herbal, which can be defined as not being at least potential toxic!

That command is uncannily like the Rede—the nearest thing to an ethical “law” among witches and magic users. And their decisions and actions must, like those of magic-workers, take into account relative degrees of harm. For, if pain itself were harm, then no doctor in all of history could in good conscience cause the pain of setting a broken leg, excavating a bullet or arrow, lancing a boil, stitching a gash. Yet the consequences of such inaction will be predictably worse for the patient; so they harm the fewest the least, and go ahead with the procedure.

Heroic Measures

That same rationale, however, is applied today in cases where the outcome is no better than a crap shoot. Using toxic compounds and near-lethal radiation, doctors try to make the human (host) environment fatal to a deadly parasitical growth, no matter how much suffering the treatment causes the patient. It’s an approach similar to that of the body’s own immune reactions, when the fever, histamine, and swelling, produced to kill off some invading bug, go on to create miseries and even life-threatening conditions of their own. The question usually becomes, is the host human strong enough to survive the prescribed treatment?

In these cases, we’re at the edge of Hippocratic territory—are we doing no harm?—yet such medical action is routine today, the world over. Doctors bump heads with Hippocrates every time they provide resuscitation treatment to a patient who has documented a wish not to receive it. The reason, for it’s more than an excuse, is the law. Not taking action to preserve any scrap of life, regardless of human or dollar cost, has become more hazardous to a doctor’s livelihood than taking action. Hence, between bureaucracy and statute, doctors are squeezed into a pattern that’s only now being broken up—by too many tales of medicine gone mad.

Brain-dead hulks “live” for decades with machine and hand-tending, vacuuming up precious medial and financial resources. Experienced physicians know the system so well that they’ll have tattooed on their sternum the words “no code”—hospital slang for “do not resuscitate, the patient has signed the papers”—only to awaken attached to machines, with broken ribs and a week-long life expectancy, because “it’s not a legal document.” No wonder the world fears medicine—the prospect of surviving can be infinitely more terrifying than the prospect of death.

Punishing the Dead

Christianity judges everyone, even the dead. It is from Christian medieval teachings that some of our weirder laws spring, such as the law that makes it a crime to commit suicide (Christianity is built around a final judgment). Medieval suicides were denied Christian burial for committing the mortal sin of self-murder…unless they did so while insane. This heartless practice—for denying religious services undoubtedly hurt the surviving family, while damage to the deceased is debatable—led to the routine practice of declaring suicides to have taken action while “of unsound mind”—a euphemistic convention that allowed for funeral and burial according to local custom. Some 19th-century wit said that suicides were deemed “of unsound mind” because any other conclusion would cast doubt on the soundness of mind of those who choose to remain among the living.

Limiting Choices

Modern psychiatry would have it that suicide attempts are commonly cries for help; but what of the successes? What of the 88-year-old man and his 85-year-old wife who quietly take a “Final Exit” rather than be forced by infirmity, bureaucracy, and insolvency out of their 35-year home? What of an advanced AIDS patient whose disfigurement and disability has cost him his assets, his home, and his friends? What of the young pregnant girl, cast off by a “God-fearing” family to the mercy of the streets? What of the cancer patient, untreatable beyond continuing toxics and pain-killers, unable to pursue the activities that make life life? What of social pariahs who, like Socrates, choose a cup of hemlock over exile from their life’s meaning? And what of society’s prisoners, who face that most personal of violent crimes, rape, while imprisoned; is it societal concern, or vindictiveness, that dictates such elaborate precautions against inmate suicide?

Control and Consent

These questions all relate to the issue of controlling one’s destiny. Regardless of my belief of what is right for you, I should not dictate—nor should society. Mr. Dent of Darwin chose to exit peacefully, with assistance, maintaining control of his life and his death. My late uncle chose to go on living as long as it worked; yet, in the end, he, too, chose “no heroic measures.” For a man afraid of death, as my uncle was—who might have lived months longer, medicated and hospital-bound, periodically losing parts to surgery—was this suicide? Perhaps. He died naturally the night before his transfer to a hospice; after less than a week in hospital. Yet we learned that he had refrained from using prescribed morphine for a year before he died. What pain one may survive with fortitude, another may find unendurable. But each—Mr. Dent and my uncle—made his choice, kept control, and gave consent.

To Relieve Suffering

In September 1996, Dr. Nitchke told the press that Bob Dent sought to end his suffering by dying, and that his role as doctor was to listen to the patient, and to try to act to relieve that suffering. In the end, Nitchke made Dent’s suicide possible. So did the person who wrote the controlling software program. So did the people who passed that law, the first to be put to use.

Hippocrates would be proud.

This blog entry originally appeared in the Pagan Muse & World Report Winter 1997 issue as the column “Conversations Over the Forge.” Slightly updated, it remains largely as written.

 

The Trouble with Dichotomy

Either–or Thinking

Someone is saying it—whaddya mean, dichotomy? Dichotomy

So let’s start with an image: Two circles, one black labelled A, one white labelled B. They are identical in size and shape, completely separate in position, and have no shared content. This is a pictorial representation of a dichotomy. Oxford Dictionary defines dichotomy as “a division…between two things that are…entirely different.

So why does a witch care? Simple. The absolutism of either–or thinking, a concept that goes back at least 2500 years in religion to Zoroastrianism and affects all modern religions “of the book” also permeates occult writing of the past two centuries. For example, Theosophy, a religion (or “esoteric religious tradition,” to quote Joseph Campbell,) was promulgated by the Theosophical Society with Helena Blavatsky primary among its 1875 founders, In Theosophy, the atma (Sanskrit, “soul”) is the Higher Self so often taught in New Age self-help practices to be the individual’s source of true wisdom.The difficulty with the term higher self becomes evident when one asks the obvious question, “Higher than what?”

The notion that a lower self (or consciousness) exists within us all and must be overcome or improved by a higher self (or consciousness) pervades the New Age assumptions drawn from 19th and 20th century esotericism—which, in turn, borrow extensively from Hindu and Buddhist concepts that buried the Old English vocabulary of the witch, and even the Latinate vocabulary of the ceremonial magician. Even the religion of Thelema, product of Aleister Crowley (and Rabelaisian fiction) presupposes that practitioners have a “True Will” that manages their ethical dictum: “Love is the Law, Love under Will.”

Where Witchcraft Meets Dichotomy

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

—The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good the witch of the north, to Dorothy upon her arrival in Oz

Glinda’s question mirrors a more modern one, often posed to me: “Do you do white magic?” And the questioner invariably looked nervous while asking. Twenty-odd years of teaching, and I reflexively reply, “Is a hammer good when it hits the nail and bad when it hits your thumb?”

Magic is a tool, just as is a hammer. It is a tool used by witches, and a great many others; goodness or badness is a matter of perspective. More to the point, it is not a dichotomy, a division, at all. Goodness and badness as qualities are two ends of a spectrum, and less than that, or more. For a spectrum implies a line, or a series along a line, and goodness and badness do not fall into such a narrow space.  Good magic may mean effective magic, or helpful magic, or healing magic. Bad magic may mean baleful magic, or ineffective magic, or selfish magic. And sometimes selfish magic is beneficial, just as sometimes good magic is interference.

Outside of deliberately contrived fiction, witchcraft connects us to each other, to nature, and to balance. At the solstices, dark or light, humans yearn for a return to a balance. Summer solstice having just passed in the North, the 16 hours of daylight begin to interfere with needful sleep. Walking for fun or exercise is done at times of day when shadows fall broadly, and one instinctively chooses to walk on the shadowed side of the street. In the same way, at winter solstice, with daylight throttled to a scant 8 hours, dry moments of daylight are cherished, and the sun-warmth on skin is welcome, if rare.

labyrinthNorseWicca celebrates the Wheel of the Year, and yet the wheel we speak of is not a wheel but a spiral, for when we reach a point along its cycle, we are in a different time and space. Ancient and modern petroglyphs depict such spirals and their cousin–labyrinths.

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

“The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

 

 

The past as prologue

Sorting the many piles of paper that need new permanent homes, I came across small something I wrote in 1973. And it still speaks to me, and perhaps to others. I choose to share it.

Healing

Fair and far the world may seem,
caught in sun or moonswift sheen.
Cold and clear is sight of land,
well to touch or see or stand.
Bright the brimming waters flow
shadow-dappled as they go
running under green-leafed trees,
singing softly in the breeze,
and moving on towards foreign seas.

Worlds may lap sometimes at need—
sorrow calls and woods may heed.
Quiet calms the troubled soulp
healing slowly makes it whole.
In the mundane light of day,
sylvan folk may walk and play.
Down a dark or dreary hall,
where troubles wait or cares befall,
listen to the fair ones call…

—spring 1973

©1973–2018 Deborah Snavely, all rights reserved

Reverence Wonders…

…let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

—the Charge of the Goddess

Here concludes a series of blog entries undertaking to examine each of the eight qualities that our Great Mother advises us to cherish in our hearts.

What Is Reverence?

Modern culture won’t teach you the meaning of reverence. The dictionary defines it as “a feeling of deep respect; awe; or veneration.” Veneration in turn points back to reverence, and modern usage of the word awful (full of awe) renders that word nearly meaningless in our invent-a-word-every-week approach to language—more accurately to the jargon we so often substitute for language. Respect retains a little meaning…yet most people think of Aretha Franklin’s feminist anthem before—unless they’re thinking of Rodney Dangerfield.

Reverence, then, is perhaps the most difficult of all these qualities to pin down. Multi-layered excavation into the word focuses my attention on two words:

  • Awe
    Originally, awe meant simply, “struck with dread or fear”; Oxford today defines it: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or dread.”
    Wonder—a word equivalent to miracle a millennium ago, and, the emotion felt when witnessing a miracle—that is the closest I find in today’s lexicon that conveys such meaning.
  • Worthy
    Worthy comes into reverence when defined as “worthy of respect.”  Worthy, however, is a word with key meaning to British Traditional Wicca. Having merit or nobility comes closest to defining one’s worth, at least within the Wicca.

So, what is reverence?

In the context of the Charge, having reverence within you, tells me to heed, and to cherish, those interactions—conversations, meditations, observations—that elicit wonder, that are worth my time, that flutter my heart, that shake my spirit.

Reverence Without

I have experienced reverence — wonder, awe, respect — most frequently in two sorts of locales:

Nature

  • California_River_Otterwatching a wild river otter playing waterslide over the rapids in the Trinity River, from close enough that my toes were in the river on the far bank!
  • when old-growth redwoods entreated/pleaded/demanded I continue my inexpert solitary recorder serenade played on the stage of the open-air Redwood Forest Theater redwoods_forest_theater_stage.jpgamid Armstrong Redwoods in the Russian River valley — I had always wanted to try the acoustics, was there on an early March drizzly day with the place empty, and had with me a second-hand wooden tenor recorder, which I was learning to play; the trees made us continue until the recorder lost its voice owing to condensation in its throat.
  • observing the shadow bands over the eastern Oregon desert during my first total solar eclipse in February 1979…and sharing them with my partner in August 2017

Between the Worlds

  • deity contacts
    RabbitintheMoonwhen Selene showed me the marchhare-moonMarch Hare
    – when Athena chose me as Her priestess
    – when Lugh identified Himself as my protector
    – when Pan & Spider Woman made Themselves
    evident among the redwoods
    – when Salmon Woman informed me she’s a face of Brigantia, Athena, & Bride
  • discovering ungroundedness when I was brought in to the Wicca
  • experiencing the Descent of the Goddess
  • whenever one of my initiates draws down for the first time

Reverence Within

Here is where the Lady’s advice proves most challenging, when individual Witches must learn to be gentle with themselves, to cherish the wonder & awe within themselves, to acknowledge & respect their own strengths…while uncovering & addressing their own failings.

“For behold, I am the mother of all things, and my love is poured out upon the earth.”
The Charge of the Goddess, prose version, Doreen Valiente (Ameth)

 

 

a word about wool…

Natural Fire Management

The first article I ever wrote for a Pagan magazine described my attribution of the four common natural fibers to elemental correspondences, in which I spoke about wool corresponding to elemental Water. There’s good reason for that. When exposed to flame, wool ignites reluctantly, the char spreads slowly, and tends to self-extinguish. These facts were used in early 20th-century quality-control textile testing of wool fabrics, according to the 1942 industrial Encyclopedia of Textiles. Every householder knew those fact before the days of synthetic fiber and central heating.

The Hearthrug

Historic home traditions in fire-fighting and fire prevention may puzzle the millennial generation. A hearthrug, as its name says, was a rug laid before the hearth or hearthstone. Modern dictionary definitions merely state that their purpose was to protect the floor—if your home had a floor made of wood—a luxury in many cottage households, while earthen floors were commonplace. Back to the wood floor; sparks jumping outward from the hearth fire—a cook-fire & heat source at once, were a commonplace event that marred that cherished wood floor. Hearthrugs were, of course, were made of wool. And wool hates to burn! A hearthrug, whether a whole sheepskin, a patterned wool weaving, or a rag rug that recycled the rags of worn-out wool clothing, lay where the sparks from an open cook-fire might leap, and extinguish any opportunistic flames that tried to take hold.

Blanket Means Wool

Home fire-fighting equipment consisted of a bucket of sand (not water) and old blankets—no one in the 19th century felt any need to specify that blankets were made of wool. During my childhood, Army surplus blankets—those olive-drab green remnants of WWII & Korean War oversupply—were routinely a few layers of the bedrolls mother taught us to make (what’s a sleeping bag?). The family camped with them in Mohave Desert, in Joshua Tree National Park, and in Sequoia National Park we discovered the environment on the western edge of the continent. By the time we lived in northern California in the mid-1960s, I recognized the value of that traditional fire-fighting technique, when dog-day grass fires saw every able-bodied man grabbing a blanket or throw rug as they ran towards the edges of the fire to contain & control it, often accomplished before the local all-volunteer fire department could arrive—who then wetted down the entire site to prevent surprise re-ignition. Wool blankets, wool area rugs, wool horse blankets: emergency equipment on ranches, farms, homesteads, and ordinary households.

Wool has a magic all its own.

 

IMPORTANT! Don’t try this with just any blanket today—
synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, or fleece will flare,
stick to human skin, and retain heat long after active flame is gone—
more like napalm than fire-suppressant; people have died wearing polar fleece.)

Mirth Lightens…

…let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

—the Charge of the Goddess

Here continues a series of blog entries undertaking to examine each of the eight qualities that our Great Mother advises us to cherish in our hearts.

What Is Mirth?

merriment_outside_rome

Harvest merriment outside the walls of Rome.

Mirth means joy or pleasure although modern dictionaries equate the word mirth with laughter & levity. The word itself is simply the noun form of the adjective merry, which means pleasant, agreeable, or sweet. Every winter in the USA people wish each other a “Merry Christmas” while across the Atlantic the British express the same sentiment as “Happy Christmas.”

A traditional time for merriment is after the annual harvest—grain, fruits, fish, nuts—has been successfully gathered and stored. Harvest Home festivities include the early October Erntedankfest in Germany including the famed Munich Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving in Canada on October‘s second Monday, and Michaelmas in Scotland at the end of September—a occasion which inherits customs from the Celtic games at Lughnasadh.

Mirth Without

“We all need joy, and we can all receive joy…by adding to the joy of others.”
—Eknath Easwaran, The End of Sorrow

“Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased…”
—Spider Robinson

CAbuckeye-flowerspikeMirth or merriment is sometimes where one finds it. The seasonal Easter marquee that fronts a local (Christian) church along a minor arterial street in my neck of the woods reiterates the annual proclamation I’ve heard & seen for 60 years…“He is risen!”—for years an in-your-face irritant of springtide, at least when combined with the annual plague of grass allergies.

EARLYARTFreyrMost recently, the image that brought mind is the priapic image of the flowering California buckeye in all its phallic glory—in its turn a reminder of the sacred sexuality of the Hornéd One. And I burst out laughing, with a whole new twist on that old irritation—one that will no longer irk as it has for decades.

Mirth Within

Clearly, having mirth within you is not the same thing as laughing all the time. Mirth is an attitude, taking joy in everyday things, being pleasant with yourself and with others. Certainly laughter may be a result of such an attitude, and supports the attitude itself. Mirth and merriment acts to counter-weight life‘s inevitable irritations and frustrations; much more significant is support of such attitude when facing crisis, tragedy, and loss.

“They that love mirth, let them heartily drink,
‘Tis the only receipt to make sorrow sink.”
—Ben Jonson, Entertainments

dog-bones

NOTHING is like a Burden Cloth!

Enjoying small things even in the midst of sorrow is an instance of keeping at least a spark mirth within. Although I grieved at the death of my mother, I took pleasure in the knowledge that she was able to live her life independently until the end; she sold her Burden Cloth totes at Eugene‘s Tuesday Market the very day before her death. As I gave instructions for her bodily disposal, I handed the funeral home one of her own Farm Size Burden Cloth™ totes to be used for her shroud…and she still wore the prior day‘s t-shirt, one she”d had silkscreened with the image at left & beneath it: “NOTHING is like a Burden Cloth!

Other aspects of her disposal also pleased me, as it would her—the funeral home had arrangements with a local MD who would remove her pacemaker (not suited for either burial or cremation), containing as it did heavy metals)…and although the MD could not do so within the USA, he workd with an organization that sterilized such used pacemakers and supplied their life-saving technology to patients in poor countries abroad. Carol ones wrote an article entitled “Where in the world is Away” on the topic of re-use and re-cycling. I could feel her approval as I signed the paperwork for that detail. Odd to feel pleasure amid the grief. Odd, but true, and supportive. Mirth—joy or pleasure or merriment or even levity—does indeed lighten the spirit.